When supporting students, Ginwright encourages educators to ask themselves, “How do we create strategies that allow for our young people to move out of trauma and into transformation?” For instance, ongoing systemic racism compounded the experience of COVID-19 and created stress and trauma among Black students. Many students felt helpless after George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and it prompted teachers to make space for students to talk about how they were feeling and the changes they’d like to see in their community. Ultimately many students were inspired to take action from protesting police presence in schools to organizing neighborhood cleanups.
Keeping up with constantly changing COVID-19 safety guidelines meant that students and educators alike felt like things were out of their control. “Even as leaders, you sometimes felt incompetent through all of this because you thought you understood what you were supposed to do and then you would do it only to find out the next day that it was something different,” said Dr. Sheila McCabe, assistant superintendent of educational services with the Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District in California. While those in the district couldn’t have control over the big picture, they found opportunities to exercise agency. Identifying and creating district-wide goals helped many people feel like they had a little bit of influence over their environment.
Transactional or Transformative Relationships
In school settings, according to Ginwright, relationships fall into two categories: transactional or transformative.
Transactional relationships are related to the title or status a person has. For example, being a principal isn’t void of power dynamics with regards to staff. “Transactional relationships are effective and efficient relationships, but they’re not sufficient for healing,” said Ginwright. “Transactional relationships are easy to break because they are not about people. They’re about titles.”
Transformative relationships, however, may require adults to learn how to be more vulnerable with each other and in turn cultivate a safe environment for students . Transformative relationships, he said, are built on pieces of our humanity. “And when we let our humanity spill out on each other, we create a bond that matters.”
At Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District, administrators are using HCE to take steps in addressing chronic absenteeism with their students.
Assistant superintendent McCabe said reaching out to students to learn more about why they aren’t able to show up to school revealed that many chronically absent students live in low income parts of the district and are more likely to experience persistent stress. “We think that part of [the solution] is really developing strategies to build authentic connection with our students and their parents and through those authentic connections help to reengage kids,” said McCabe. One strategy the district has used to create more transformative relationships is doing a check-in at the beginning of conversations with students. “The questions might be something like, ‘Share with the group the best thing that has happened this week’ or ‘What are you most proud of,’” said McCabe. “We are a few months into really using this technique and staff members have shared that they feel like their conversations, even those that might be challenging conversations, are more meaningful and more productive.”
In McCabe’s district, they aren’t just strengthening relationships in the classroom. They’re building rapport among staff too. McCabe said her colleagues start every meeting by grounding the team with a breathing exercise. “It would take maybe three minutes of a one-hour meeting, but every time I’m like ‘Okay, I’m here.’”
Being caught up in the daily grind can make people who work with kids lose sight of why they engage in this work in the first place, which is to build community, facilitate healing and wellbeing, and support young people in the restoration of their humanity. “We have to remind ourselves of the purpose that we’re engaged in when we are working with young people. We also have to remind young people of the broader, bigger, deeper purpose of their engagement.” Ginwright said, upholding the meaning in healing-centered engagement simply means that there is ongoing focus on the things that matter.
COVID has made being a teacher and being a student incredibly difficult. However, it’s just as important to continue to envision a possible future, said Ginwright.